Saturday, October 22, 2011



Prof Taban Mokotiyang Rekenet Lo Liyong is a marvellously gifted man of letters and his unconventional writing style and flamboyant personality have established him as one of Africa’s literary icons.

PHOTO/EMMA NZIOKA /NATION Prof Taban Mokotiyang Rekenet Lo Liyong is a marvellously gifted man of letters and his unconventional writing style and flamboyant personality have established him as one of Africa’s literary icons.

Posted Friday, October 21 2011 at 20:21


Eccentric scholar Prof Lo Liyong has courted controversy with his dismissal of East Africa as ‘a dry, desolate, barren stretch of wilderness where literature has simply refused to sprout’

Sporting a grey goatee and wearing a cream-coloured flowing robe, an old leather bag in his hand and a brown Scottish style cap on his balding head, he cuts the image of a magician in a Nollywood movie.

But Prof Taban Mokotiyang Rekenet Lo Liyong is a marvellously gifted man of letters and his unconventional writing style and flamboyant personality have established him as one of Africa’s literary icons.

Since the 1960s, he has courted controversy, beginning with his dismissal of East Africa as a literary wasteland, “a dry, desolate, barren stretch of wilderness where literature has simply refused to sprout.”

It is a charge he would repeat time and again, but most passionately in 1975, when he wrote in the 50th edition of the respected literary journal Transition in a piece titled:East Africa, oh East Africa I lament thy literary barrenness.

Despite his advanced age, Prof Lo Liyong still walks with a spring in his step and has a combative nature which belies his slight frame.

Prof Lo Liyong was in unapologetic mood when Saturday Nation sought him out in Nairobi last Thursday.

“I am fed up talking to myself. Africa has ceased to produce intellectuals. I don’t come here to cause mayhem. But I come to continue the revolutionary fire we started four decades ago,” he said.

Few exceptional Africans

But slipping back to his intellectual pride for which he is well-known, the dean of the Faculty of Arts, Drama and Music at the University of Juba says: “Some critics write that I am controversial but with all the stupidity in Africa and the world these days, which intelligent man or woman would like to follow the herd or pseudo-leaders? I consider myself my own man.”

He continues: “Okay, we do have few exceptional Africans. (Chinua) Achebe created popular literature which resonates well with the African way of narrating a story.

“Soyinka showed us what can be done with the big vocabulary; (Kamara) Laye produced classics. But in terms of really understanding what the European mentality is all about, only Ayi Kwei Armah and I have got it right.”

Armah is the author of the seminal novel The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born which expresses the “rot” that characterised post-independent Ghana in the last years of founding president Kwameh Nkrumah and the frustration many citizens of the newly-independent states in Africa felt after attaining political independence.

Prof Lo Liyong says Africa will only get it right when it decides to pursue excellence and has harsh words for the parallel system of university education, saying it has robbed Kenya of its academic heritage.

“Let the parallel students be taught by parallel lecturers, but every African country should set aside a centre of excellence to produce the continent’s Nobel laureates.

If you had allowed yourselves to have parallel runners you will not have excelled in athletics,” he says.

Dismisses Nobel Prize

His statement is not likely to go down well with many, including his colleagues in the academia, given private sponsorship is a multi-billion shilling industry providing a lifeline, not only to thousands of students who are not absorbed through the Joint Admissions Board, but also to the professors who see it as meal ticket to shore up their earnings.

Prof Lo Liyong dismisses Nobel Peace prizes, saying they are a mark of weakness. “It means you turn the other cheek when you are slapped.

“We need genuine Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics and mathematics and we cannot produce them in the current state of things,” he laments.

Defending his unconventional style of writing and speech, he describes the English language as a “prostitute with whom we have all slept in our different ways,” saying it has succeeded because it is malleable and there are so many versions of it.

He has often been accused of using sex innuendos in his writing, a charge he dismisses with a wave of the hand.

“All these conflicts boil down to sex. And if it is easier to use that language to drive the message home faster, why not?” he poses.

The eccentric scholar says no one can live off writing fiction in Africa. “But that is no excuse. Those of us who have salaried employment owe it to our society to write works of art and publishers too owe it to society to publish them.

True to his style of commenting on almost everything under the sun, he has no kind words for “fake faiths” whose leaders, he claims, are living in opulence at the expense of hapless faithful and challenges writers to expose them in novels.

“For every 10 textbooks you publish, you should publish two books for intellectual enhancement of Africa -- serious novels, poems and works of literary criticism.”

“Why is nobody writing about this scandal of using the Lord’s name in vain? How can they use poor women’s last pennies to buy planes and fleets of cars?”

He claims that some pastors are using wireless electric shocks to fell people in churches so as to sell their miracle theories.

Because of this no-holds-barred approach, for which he has earned the title of East Africa’s literary enfante terrible, Prof Lo Liyong has received praise and criticism in equal measure.

And the don’s detractors are in droves. One of them is Maseno University history professor William Ochieng, who accuses him of having made Nairobi his Centre for Invective Dispensation (CID), where he would criticise every aspect of the ivory tower and leave the campuses aflame with clamorous debate.

He says true to the poet’s name, he is now taban (Arabic word for tired) and has lost relevance in today’s literary dispensation.

“Taban no longer deserves publicity and can only be dotted as a museum piece. He lacks p’Bitek’s artistic bravura and Ngugi’s restless soul. His classroom and public lectures are unstructured and rigourless. He punches his colleagues without regard to reason,” writes Prof Ochieng.

But Narok University College lecturer Solomon Waliaula says Prof Lo Liyong’s place in African literature is assured because of his unique writing style.

“Literature is different from history, which is about currency of thought. His writing represents a watershed in African fiction, incorporating as it does both folk elements and the most self-conscious kind of European fiction,” says Mr Waliaula.

Wanted to kill me

But perhaps the 72-year-old scholar’s fame lies in his contribution to the ‘On the Abolition of the English Department in 1968’ which sought to position African literature at the centre of the education system.

Together with the late Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, he called for the educational system to emphasise oral tradition (as a key traditional African form of learning), Swahili literature, as well as prose and poetry from the African-American and Caribbean societies.

According to his own accounts, he was born in Sudan and carried on the back to Uganda to escape “a malevolent relative who wanted to kill me.”

“But in 1978, I dumped my passports at the immigration offices as I no longer wanted to be a man of two minds and two nations.

“To crown it all, I went to my village and vied for the position of MP to reestablish my credentials,” he says, clearing the air over what his critics said was his taking up Ugandan nationality to escape conflict.

He was briefly a member of the Regional Parliament of Juba during the regime of President Gaffar Numeiri between 1982 and 1985, where he is said to have been a vociferous backbencher in the mould of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

So what is his contribution to the development of the new nation, South Sudan, which recently got independence after decades of war with the Arab regime in Khartoum?

“The work we are doing in South Sudan is unique. We are trying to decolonise from the Arab north as well as from European influences,” he says rather defensively.

He says he will soon build a unique university to be called African Continental University to inculcate practical education and theoretical disciplines in students.

“Last week I also translated my Wer Pa Lawino (The Defence of Lawino) into English. Now is the time for philosophers to assess where we are coming from, where we came from and where we are going to.”

Prof Lo Liyong obtained his BA in Literature from Howard University, USA, and Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, USA, where he was the first African to graduate from the Iowa Writers Workshop.

On completing his studies in the US, the tyrannical regime of Idi Amin prevented him from returning to Uganda. He instead came to Kenya and taught at the University of Nairobi.

He has also taught at international universities in Papua New Guinea, Australia, Japan and South Africa.

The father of six has published over 20 books which include Carrying Knowledge Up a Palm Tree (1998), an anthology of poetry that addresses various contemporary issues and follows African progress in recent history.

Some of his works of fiction are Eating Chiefs, Frantz Fanon’s Uneven Ribs, Another Nigger Dead and Words that Melt a Mountain which demonstrate Taban’s ability to experiment on various stylistic devices.

In one of his most controversial assertions, he rejects long-established literary conventions defined by Aristotle for effective writing.

In The Uniformed Man (1971), he calls for readers to approach text in a different way, that is, not to follow the usual conventions of literature such as “introduction, exposition, rising action, etc. up to the climax”. Instead, text should be unconstrained by expectation and read with a consistent appreciation for “each word, phrase, or sentence”.

Some critics, however, think that he has overdone it. “If age gives one poetic freedom to say anything, then we can only say that Taban, occasionally, overstretches this freedom,” writes Masinde Muliro University’s Prof Egara Kabaji.

He says his play Showhat and Sowhat does not conform to the basic structures of a play and is lacking of any edifying stylistic form.

Showhat is a rich man with an ego that has eclipsed his reason. He is given to boasting and showing off. On the other hand, Sowhat is a pauper, but proud in his own way.

The book revolves around two families: those of Mr Showhat and Mr Sowhat.

The main conflict arises when Shiney puts Sowhat’s daughter in the family way. The case is brought up to a judge who rules that the two should exchange homes.

What is even more interesting is that My-show, Showhat’s wife, conceives and gives birth while living with Sowhat!

Prof Lo Liyong says this outrageous solution is what Kenya, and other African nations need if they are to become true states.

“The play is a comment on Kenya’s politics and its disillusion. I say intermarry and you become states or you remain with the current attitude and you all perish.”

“But which producer is capable of staging this play in its present form without annoying himself or without annoying his audience?” wrote Prof Kabaji in a recent issue of the Sunday Nation.

Prof Lo Liyong defends it saying it is it is “a very serious book containing murderous jokes.”

“That book and The Colour of Hope are about youthful rebellion. Those who have ears let them hear; those who have eyes let them see.

“ If every time I have to sit down to explain what I wrote, then it goes to confirm that I was right about the literary desert,” he admonishes.

“No Kenyan is talking about the post-election violence. Instead, people like Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o are writing folk tales.

f we don’t change our attitude about one another, the next election could even be worse. Give a chance to these Sheng-speaking young people. And that is what I am saying in the books,” he explains.

Prof Lo Liyong traces the failure of the African continent to the first generation of African intellectuals. “We, the pioneering philosophers, writers and academics were the second troupe of the decolonisers.

“But the problem arose when some of us did not critically relate with the new black rulers. I remember when people like Armah were criticising Ghana’s founding father Kwameh Nkrumah , saying the beautiful ones were not yet born, we were critical of him at the time.

“Even Ngugi was calling Kenyatta the black messiah yet there is no saint,” he says.